When workers arrived to sweep a homeless encampment near where Interstate 90 meets Rainier Avenue South in 2015, Lisa Hooper wasn’t ready.
She packed up as quickly as she could, but ultimately had to leave behind precious possessions, including photos of her three young daughters. They were destroyed.
Hooper, now a plaintiff in a case by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project, among others, has been swept many times. Over the course of multiple cleanups, she lost mementoes, clothing, a mattress and shoes, all things that are critical to a person’s physical and emotional well-being.
Some items are irreplaceable, such as her family photos. Others, like accepted identification, are easier, but people experiencing homelessness face barriers such as cost and the ability to prove who they are in the first place.
It’s next to impossible to operate in the modern world without identification, the slim card that acts as a government stamp of confirmation that you are who you say you are. You need ID to open a bank account, get on an airplane, validate your age or walk into some federal buildings, but it’s also necessary to sign up for food assistance or get into housing.
Getting a state-issued ID can be difficult and expensive, requiring a large amount of official documentation that can be easy for unhoused people to lose and hard to replace. Because it’s necessary for programs that make it easier to lift yourself out of poverty, requiring an ID can be a barrier for homeless and low-income people. It’s about to get harder, as federal laws tighten regulations on what is required of state IDs for federal agencies to accept them.
To apply for an ID in Washington, a resident must provide proof of identity. Some documents are “stand alone,” like an ID from another state or a U.S. passport. Failing that, a person needs to show multiple documents from two categories called A and B-list documents. The number varies by age. A person over 25 years old must show up to a licensing office with up to four B-list documents, such as a birth certificate, international ID, U.S. visa or a concealed weapons permit.
Gathering enough paperwork to apply for and receive a state ID can take months and cost more than $100, said David Mace, director of the Open Door Legal Services clinic run by the Union Gospel Mission.
“Homeless clients don’t have access to those things,” Mace said. “It can be a challenge not just for homeless people, but for others.”
Open Door Legal Services has helped 13 clients get their IDs in the past six months while helping with roughly 1,000 cases. The low number belies the need — many people need ID, but most don’t need an attorney to get it. They can finish the process on their own or with the help of a case worker, assuming they have the paperwork they need to complete the process.
The cases that Mace and his team see are the most convoluted.
Many people experiencing homelessness can’t produce the B-list documents. Documents get lost, stolen or destroyed, and acquiring replacements requires even more documentation and cash. A birth certificate in King County costs $20, plus fees between $4 and $12.50, depending on the type of payment used.
Trying to get replacement documents can become a catch-22, because a person has to demonstrate their identity in order to buy them.
Attorneys have workarounds for some of these requirements, but oftentimes the process turns into a game of sleuth in which the lawyer has to root through a person’s legal paper trail to satisfy the government.
The kinds of records that can be used to take the intermediary step of getting a document off the B-list aren’t intuitive. A home mortgage can help prove identity, but a jail record with a picture, social security number, fingerprints and date of birth cannot. Medical records used to be widely accepted, but now they are more scrutinized.
“Some things you think would definitely help, don’t,” Mace said. “It can be a real challenge.”
As difficult as it is for people experiencing homelessness, undocumented residents can have it even harder.
Washington State doesn’t require proof of legal residence, so documented residents and undocumented residents can both apply for state ID. One man that sought help from the Open Doors Legal Clinic had immigrated to the United States from rural Mexico. To prove his identity, Mace and his team sent away for school records from the man’s hometown.
“When we ordered them, they came handwritten,” Mace said.
That man eventually got his ID, but not every case ends well.
One client came to Mace after a lifetime outside. He’d been born into a survivalist group, but was getting older and wanted help getting into housing. However, he’d never received so much as a birth certificate. As far as federal or state government was concerned, he did not exist, and nothing Mace’s team could do convinced the Department of Licensing otherwise.
Soon, satisfying the Department of Licensing won’t even be enough.
In 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which indirectly tightened security around getting ID by prohibiting federal entities from accepting state licenses that didn’t meet certain requirements, including proof of U.S. citizenship or legal residency.
Washington state, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri and Montana are the five states with state-issued identification that the federal government no longer accepts for access to federal property, including military bases. By January 2018, residents of these states will have to produce different identification to get on an airplane, provided the state legislatures fail to pass a bill bringing their state laws into compliance.
After January 2020, however, residents of all states will have to produce REAL ID-compliant identification.
That means that unless the legislature acts, Washington residents would have to show an “enhanced ID,” which has all the necessary security as well as a radio frequency ID (RFID) chip so that locals can cross the border into Canada without a passport.
Very few Washingtonians carry enhanced IDs. At the end of 2016, 584,337 of 5,705,688 Washington drivers license were enhanced, while 24,696 of 623,909 ID cards in the state were similarly secure, according to the Department of Licensing.
Part of that may be the cost. A first-time applicant for an ID card can expect to part with $59, plus the cost of ordering documents like birth certificates, school records or social security cards. An enhanced ID will set an applicant back $108 to begin.
One bill that passed the Washington State legislature on March 1 would lower the cost to $90 for four years to give some relief, but it’s still half again as expensive as a regular ID.
There is some help. Clients who work with the state Department of Social and Human Services (DSHS) can fill out a form to get the cards at cost for $5, but the form has to be filled out by a caseworker proving that the client receives services.
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